A Lotus Lesson

Nancy Sowder’s Lotus Platter. Photo: Taylor Dabney.

Each morning in Southern India, women adorn the ground in front of their homes with rice flour, poured from their fingers into beautiful, symmetrical patterns called kolams (1). These auspicious drawings anoint the entry and bless those passing by; they can signify that food is available for the hungry and are themselves food for the birds and insects.

As an ancient form of devotion and communication, they carry many meanings. While they are individually ephemeral, as a tradition they have endured for thousands of years. The following morning, the remnants not taken by passing feet or eaten by ants will be swept away with the leaves and pebbles, preparing the earth to begin once more.

In the chamber of a kaleidoscope, bits of colored glass shift, falling into intricate geometries of symmetry and light—a stained-glass window in motion, a festival of color.

A potter transforms a tall, straight-sided cylinder into a round-bellied pitcher. As a child, I was captivated by the clay as it morphed from one form into another.

1 A kolam drawn on the ground outside of a home in Puducherry, India.

Though momentary occurrences, these visual impressions became indelible in my memory and have coalesced in my current work inspired by the lotus. Beginning in the thick mud at the bottom of a pond, the lotus ascends through murky darkness to bloom above the water’s surface, a symbol of transcendence and enlightenment in various cultures and wisdom traditions. If you look at your own life, I am sure you will recall times when a struggle brought you to something beautiful, or landed you in the exact right place. That too, for me, is the story of my work.

Preparation

You can sketch a plan before starting, but you will quickly get comfortable creating without one, letting the image develop as the process takes over.

Make underglaze test tiles, fired on your clay body at the appropriate temperature. They will be an essential tool—there is no substitute for seeing the color tiles beside each other when choosing your palette.

Creating the Design with Dots

Trim and smooth your piece, then let it firm to leather hard. The design begins by marking points on the clay. Use a tape measure to center an MKM Decorating Disk; for smaller pieces just align the rings on the disk with the outer edge of your form. Like the ancient kolam, begin with a series of dots. Decide how many sections you want in your design (or refer to your plan). I use anywhere from 3 to 12 sections, depending on the size of the form. Lightly mark points on the clay, including the center point (2). These will guide your drawing. There are more holes on the disk than you will need. I typically mark every other concentric ring, but often don’t use all of my marks in the final design. Use a smaller dividing disk for points closest to the center marks (3).

Now connect the dots. A ball stylus makes lines that are not too deep or sharp so you can lightly sketch on the clay and easily rub out mistakes or change your design (4). Using the dots as guides, begin by drawing spokes out from the center point. It is not my goal to make things perfect or exact, but to be similar enough to have a unified look, with nothing too far out of line. Keep building your design outward. Note: You don’t have to use every point. Think of the dots as guides and options, you can connect them in many different ways.

2 Use the holes in the large MKM Decorating Disk to mark points for the design.

3 Mark the centermost points of the design with a small MKM Decorating Disk.

4 Use a ball stylus to draw the lotus-flower design, using the points delineating the sections as a guide.

5 Look at fired test tiles to choose an underglaze or slip color palette for the design, and select them in pairs for blending.

Color and Applying Underglaze

Choose your colors in pairs for the ombré color transition of the petals (5). I use analogous colors, but don’t limit your options to that strategy. Consider the overall color layout. If your colors transition consistently from dark to light, or follow the hues of the rainbow, it may appear as though the form was painted in one step and the design scribed on top. I want each petal, and each consecutive ring of petals, to be its own separate yet unified part of the whole, for both visual and metaphorical reasons.

Additionally, consider the direction of shading for the individual petals. In a lotus flower, the saturation of color increases toward the edge of each petal. It thus appears to be luminous, lit from within—I also love this as a metaphor. Conversely, painting the darker color toward the base of the petals creates the effect of shadows and the slight illusion of relief.

Once the design is laid out, begin applying the underglaze. I use underglazes with a thick consistency to facilitate blending. Don’t be careless with the application, but also don’t worry too much about the underglaze getting in the lines, you will go back over these once painting is complete.

Apply 2–3 coats of the lighter color, either to the entire petal, or just the portion that will remain lighter. While it is still wet, apply the second color and blend them together (6, 7). You may need to go back and forth a couple times between the two colors to get a smooth transition, which you can blend so subtly that you can’t see a line of change, or you can incorporate streaks to make veins of color in the petals. Continue until all the painting is complete.

6 Begin painting color in the center, adding the second color before the first dries for a smooth blend.

7 Continue painting the design, working your way outward, and selecting colors to differentiate each concentric ring of petals.

8 When all painting is complete, go back over the original lines with the stylus to expose a clean line of your clay body.

9 You can further define this outline with marks so your overall design does not get lost in the additional sgraffito work.

Embellishing and Finishing Touches

Retrace your original outlines, carving back through the underglaze. A non-directional tool like a ball stylus is easier to control on intricate curves (8). Use a soft brush to clear away the bits of clay as you work so as not to smudge the underglaze.

I like to make the outline more prominent to define the petals (it also helps cover slight color mishaps). I add tiny marks along the line for this (9). Add sgraffito designs to embellish the petals with dots, stripes, leaf veins, swirls, and spirals (10). It can be helpful to think about ways to divide the shape of the petal you are working on; start with one line, then keep adding. Repeating elements (even an unintentional one) will create rhythm and unity. Use a variety of tools to add more interest by varying the weight and style of the marks.

10 Add a variety of lines for finishing details, varying the size and shape of your marks to add visual interest.

 

Once complete, allow it to slowly dry, then bisque fire the piece. After the bisque firing, lightly sand the form with a piece of fine drywall sanding mesh to smooth any sharp edges from the incised lines. Remove all dust with a wet sponge and allow to dry before applying clear or transparent glaze. I would love to see what you create!

Nancy Sowder works out of her home studio in the river city of Richmond, Virginia, creating both functional pottery and ceramic sculpture. She would love to connect via Instagram @theclaylotus.

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